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The Problem With ‘Affordable’ Child Care

The service is essential to families and communities. It should be free.

Imagine a politician stepping up to a podium and promising that voters will not pay more than 7 percent of their income for their kid to go to public school. This scene likely strikes you as absurd. Public education fits into a basket of services that Americans generally agree are so essential that they should be accessible to all and funded by taxes. There is no meaningful debate over “affordable” public schools, “affordable” libraries, “affordable” parks, “affordable” streets, or “affordable” fire departments; most people seem to take for granted the fact that they are free.

Child care should be seen as one of these essential services. It makes it easier for parents to work, set down roots, and have the number of kids that they want. Much like public education, it helps children develop knowledge and skills. A comprehensive child-care system can benefit whole communities—including people without children—by reducing poverty, supporting health and safety, and building social connectivity. Yet most politicians aren’t striving to make child care free; they’re striving to make it affordable. This framing accepts the damaging premise that child care should be a private market commodity. It’s time we instead see child care as the vital service it is—one that undergirds national prosperity and should be universal and free.

Although there’s never been a serious national effort to implement a universally free program, a free-for-some child-care system did seem possible in the U.S. at one point. In 1971, Congress passed a bill to establish a federally funded, locally run network of child-care programs that would be free for low-income families and on a sliding scale for everyone else. But momentum died quickly after Richard Nixon vetoed that legislation, and the coalition supporting it splintered, perhaps leading some people to conclude that an ambitious child-care overhaul was a political impossibility. There have been efforts since to make child care more affordable, but the most sweeping of these have faltered. Widespread conservative opposition to a universal system and unease over mothers working outside the home have made the road rocky. Some critics point to the struggles of a universal (though not free) model in Quebec, which some argue was rolled out too quickly, resulting in care of variable quality. Plus, any major program—especially a free and universal one—would be more expensive to taxpayers, who might resent that even the wealthy can access it for free (a critique that has also derailed efforts to make college free). One of the most notable failures was 2021’s Build Back Better Act, which would have funneled $400 billion into child care. In this political context, it makes sense that those who want better child care might settle for affordability if they believe it might realistically improve a broken system, even if it won’t completely fix it.

Political viability, however, does not always lead to thoughtful policy design—which becomes evident when you look at how affordability is defined. Consider the common line—touted by President Joe Biden and both Democratic and Republican bill proposals, including Build Back Better—that only the wealthiest families should pay more than 7 percent of their income. That number does not derive from any careful calculation of what parents can afford without hardship. Rather, it’s the average of how much American families were paying from 1997 to 2011. The Obama administration used that statistic in 2016 to recommend reducing the cap on co-pays from 10 percent to 7 percent for those receiving subsidy vouchers. Although the effort certainly helped low-income families, those who aren’t eligible for the voucher now typically end up paying more—on average, 8 to 19 percent of their income, depending on their kid’s age, what type of provider they use, and where they live, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And even a 7 percent co-pay can be hard for poor families to meet. Still, despite its inconsistent application and the burden it may pose, the 7 percent figure has become gospel for many lawmakers and was recently codified from a recommendation into a requirement. If, however, the national average for child-care costs in that time period had been 9 percent or 4 percent or anything else, that would have likely become the “affordability” benchmark.

This is just one example of the seemingly arbitrary frameworks that shape American child-care policy and, in turn, family life. Another is that one specific form of child care for one specific age band actually is, in many cities and states, free for everyone: public pre-Kindergarten. Pre-K serves mostly 4-year-olds, along with some 3- and 5-year-olds, and might have a slightly more academic bent, but it’s otherwise largely indistinguishable from a high-quality child-care program for that age range. In fact, many providers offer both child care and public pre-K. The division between the services stems from a 19th- and early-20th-century system that stratified care options by class. Back then, lower-income families got “group child care,” which was underfunded and overcrowded and sometimes even had dirty facilities; middle- and upper-class families, meanwhile, received the much more attentive and better-resourced “preschool education.” In the following decades, pre-K was folded into the public-education framework, and child care came to be seen as part of the ill-regarded welfare system: Reformers in the 2000s concluded that child care “had effectively become a ‘bad brand,’” the sociologist Sandra Levitsky wrote in a 2019 report. Rather than working to improve child care’s reputation, many instead attempted to officially incorporate pre-K into the public-school system.

Although this move might have seemed politically expedient, undercutting child care has hurt kids and left families scrambling. For one, focusing on 3- and 4-year-olds leaves younger children out—even though learning starts before birth and continues from there. It also adds extra stress for parents, as pre-K programs are generally aligned with the school day and school year. Many parents must still struggle to secure care before and after pre-K hours, and during summer vacations. And this strain can affect kids too: Their health, happiness, and cognitive development are all tied up with parental well-being. But more fundamentally, creating divisions between care and education fails to recognize how closely intertwined—and necessary—both are. Schools aren’t just for learning; they also serve a major child-care function. And child-care educators aren’t just watching kids; they are, much like schoolteachers, developing relationships with children and guiding them as they gain skills and knowledge and grow into full people.

Child care, then, has come to occupy a strange position: crucial yet significantly undervalued. The policies governing it are capricious, filled with random benchmarks and major blind spots. Laws rarely consider certain types of caregivers, such as stay-at-home parents and family, friends, and neighbors. There are no major national efforts to address child-care needs for the after-school and summer periods. Access to care often relies on luck. As a recent headline from the Hechinger Report put it, “Free Child Care Exists in America—If You Cross Paths With the Right Philanthropist.” Of course, a truly effective system would demand a tremendous level of government investment. But the U.S. has no problem spending more than $800 billion every year on public K–12 schools. That system may be flawed, but at least enrollment in a public school doesn’t require a waiting list or depend on the largesse of a billionaire or an employer.

The need for a stronger commitment becomes clear when you look at the best child-care systems in the world, which also fail to guarantee free care. Exemplars such as Finland and France have only quasi-universal systems that retain distinctions between paid child care and free preschool. Granted, the parent fees for child care are generally modest and have a cap—in Finland, the maximum fee is 295 euros ($320) a month, which would make most American parents salivate. But these systems otherwise contend with many of the same issues U.S. programs do, such as underfunding and staffing shortages. Without a mindset and policy shift, we’ll continue to struggle to remedy these pains.

In the U.S., some people are starting to acknowledge that “free” should at least be on the table. Recently a report from an influential New York think tank argued for a universal “free or low cost” option: “There is a strong moral and economic case that child care should be a guaranteed right, just like public education.” Voters may be on board. A new survey of New Yorkers from researchers at Cornell and the University of Buffalo found that nearly 80 percent agree that child care should, like public schools, be universal and free. New Mexico came closest to implementing this vision, at least temporarily; it used pandemic-era funding to waive co-pays for working- and middle-class families receiving subsidies. As The New Republic reported, the move improved financial stability, civic engagement, and quality of life for parents and child-care educators. Although there’s no permanent statewide program like that, some states, including several Republican-led ones such as Kentucky, have made child care free for the kids of child-care providers, regardless of income.

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Trying to solve the child-care crisis by striving for affordability accepts largely unchallenged assumptions and a legacy that devalues care. America needs a system that reflects child care’s key role for kids, families, and community vibrancy. Making it accessible to everyone—not just those with a certain income—can help create a sense of solidarity, instead of forcing people to get bogged down in questions of who deserves aid. Child care is indispensable to the national fabric, and “affordable” is not good enough. It should be free.

Elliot Haspel is a child-care-policy expert and the author of Crawling Behind: America's Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.